Friday, January 22, 2010

Camille Utterback: Working at the Need of Light

by Drew Martin

I never tire of the story about Albert Einstein standing mesmerized before Alexander Calder's kinetic/motorized sculpture called A Universe and how he was fixed to it for the entire 40 minute cycle. It is an interesting circumstance primarily because we do not know what Einstein was thinking. Was he trying to figure it out or was he simply observing it? Was there something scientific to it that made him think about a more advanced system or was he simply absorbed with childish delight? When it completed its cycle, was he disappointed or pleased?

Whichever the case, Einstein was the ultimate viewer, engaged and focused, just as Calder was the ultimate artist, redefining what art is and could be and making work that might require a good portion of an hour to witness. Does this exchange represent a time when perhaps the leaders in the sciences and the arts were more likely to be household names and their fields were more influential, interdisciplinary and even, at times mutual?

As we know from Leonardo da Vinci, the arts and sciences can coexist and at times be the same entity. This relationship, tangential or intertwined, has not been lost as we have seen it remarkably surface throughout history. Georges Seurat comes to mind with his pointillism/divisionism, which reflected a time when the sciences were discussing a physical world made up of atoms. I have always found it remarkable how diverse and flexible art can be. Since my early teenage years, I was immersed in Gray's Anatomy, with those detailed drawings that show us our bodies flayed open. Art can be this precise and it can be what Salvador Dali gave us, an art that takes us on a figurative journey inside our psyche or what Mark Rothko gave us, abstract landscapes of internal emotions.

This posting was going to turn towards a kind of manifesto, which started as "I want to see the arts and other disciplines play more together and learn from each other..." but then I realized it would be better to highlight someone who is already combining different fields with his or her talents. The first person to come to mind is Camille Utterback who was one of the 2009 MacArthur Fellows, or more commonly put, a recipient of the $500,000 MacArthur Genius Award.

Camille combines art, architecture and her own computer programing to create interactive public works. In her 2007 piece Abundance, Camille installed a temporary outdoor video projection onto San Jose’s Richard Meier-designed City Hall dome and transformed an impersonal modern office plaza into an interactive environment that responded to human presence. Abundance tracked the movement of people across the plaza but also introduced graphic elements to interface with. The most powerful aspect of this work was how the programming interpreted the interactions. A lone person was one cold color but when that person was joined by another the new group became a warm color, which is simply a beautiful representation of what does happen when we are alone and then meet someone: our mass unifies, which makes us walk differently, and the color of our mood, voice, expressions and thoughts change, usually towards an elated, cheerful tone.

A more recent project, Aurora Organ translates human presence into light. The site-specific and interactive sculpture is installed in the 80 ft tall atrium of the Showplace Theaters in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.

Camille Utterback received a B.A. (1992) from Williams College and an M.P.S. (1999) from the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University. Her work has appeared in numerous solo and group exhibitions at such venues as the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the Fabric Workshop, the Netherlands Media Art Institute, and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

Click here or on the picture of Abundance above to view a video of that project.